Although territorial disparities in land quality are commonly observed in Mediterranean-type ecosystems, how different geographical gradients impact the changing distribution of land vulnerable to degradation over time and space is poorly investigated in southern Europe. The present study assesses the spatial distribution of vulnerable land according to a composite index that describes the degree of land vulnerability to degradation in Italy along eight gradients during two time periods (1960–1990 and 1990–2010), representing distinct socio-economic and environmental conditions. While the degree of land vulnerability increased at similar paces from 1960 to 1990 and from 1990 to 2010, the spatial distribution of vulnerable land changed considerably. From 1960 to 1990, the area of vulnerable lands increased in coastal areas, lowlands, and areas with moderately high population density, mainly owing to the increased climate aridity. By contrast, peri-urban areas experienced, especially in northern Italy, the highest vulnerability from 1990 to 2010 owing to increased human pressure on land generating, e.g. land-use changes. Results indicate that the importance of the gradients shaping the distribution of vulnerable land in Italy is reflected in the (changing) role of climate, vegetation cover, and human pressure as factors predisposing land to degradation. Finally, policy implications of the changing geography of vulnerable land in the Mediterranean region are discussed.